Big Hair

Big Hair

On the trail of a Rhode Island fashion phenomenon.
by Tracey Minkin

Illustration of vertical bangs
"Bang Tsunami." Illustration by Christopher Martin.

The following article originally appeared in the January 1991 issue of Rhode Island Monthly magazine, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.

Big hair... big hair... big hair.

It haunted me like some sort of conspiratorial secret handshake. Here I was, new to Rhode Island, doing my level best to eat New York System wieners, locate Leo's on a city map, and remember which bridge connected which damn island, and I hadn't spotted any big hair. Lord knows I'm looking. I prowled the streets, looking for wild, vertical, careening coiffures that would live up to that simple but loaded label.

Well, as they say in politics, expectations are everything. While I had my eyes trained upward, hoping to spot high-altitude bouffants straight off a B-52s album cover, I was apparently missing the real thing right under (or actually, a bit above) my nose. A friend pointed it out to me one night at the Warwick Showcase Cinemas. She, a Rhode Island native, directed my gaze to a pack of teenagers. "That," she said authoritatively, "is big hair."

Poofy portrait, circa 1990s
There's no doubt this person will recognize herself if she ever sees this. We hope she has a good sense of humor. (circa 1990s).

So this was it? But this wasn't so big really as it was extreme. What I saw was frontal-attack hairstyling: bangs poised, claw-like, on girls' foreheads, curls pumped up into exaggerated silhouettes. It wasn't hair. It was architecture. It was theater. It was mesmerizing.

I had to know more. It was kind of like art, people told me: you knew big hair when you saw it, and it was a Rhode Island phenomenon whose epicenter was found in Cranston, Johnston, and North Providence: the Golden Triangle of Big Hair. But when it came to details—the hows and whys of big hair—everyone came up blank.

I went to the pros, and started to get some real answers. Miss Mary, an instructor at Costin's Warwick Academy of Beauty Culture, rattled off a taxonomic model as though she had it written down next to the phone: "There are three types of big hair," she said. "Spiral perms, the spike look, and the big tease look." The common link was hairspray. Lacquer hairspray with names like Vavoom and Stiff Stuff. Lots of it.

It's a teen thing, I was told, with tendrils into the fledgling college years. When the sun goes down, look for it at nightclubs such as Barry's in Warwick and Club Confetti in North Providence. And yes, it certainly is a Cranston-Johnston-North Providence phenomenon. Robert Lombardi of Dellaria Salons in Cranston's Garden City hazarded the sociological assessment that everyone else was ducking. "It's a middle class thing," he said. Lombardi laid out the scenario: style-hungry kids with not a lot of expendable income see big heads of hair on MTV and in the movies, and they try to do it themselves. Lombardi can spot a big hair case as soon as she walks in the door and utters the telltale words: just a trim. "I try to talk them out of it," he said, "or at least show them the right way, so they don't look absolutely ridiculous."

Meanwhile, I was getting so good at spotting big hair, I believe I've discovered a new variation. I call it the El Capitan. It's a reversal of the claw—a girl takes her bangs, and instead of yanking them forward and spritzing them into place, she sweeps them up and back, way up and back, forming a vertical wall, like the face of a cliff.

Whaddya know? Big hair is mutating, it's adapting. Despite fashion trends that whisper short hair for spring, I think big hair may continue to prosper here in the Golden Triangle for an indefinite period. Lombardi, the philosophical stylist, agreed with me and put it in perspective. "Look," he said, "there are people out there who are still doing the Hustle and wearing gold chains." Perhaps the Big Hair Era has only just begun.

Cartoon: Unwilling to part with their shampo, conditioner, mousse, gel, lipstick, bronzer, and perfume, three gals from Johnston are stranded at Green State Airport.
Cartoon by Charlie Hall © 2006, used with permission.

[As of 2010] Tracey Minkin has written about Rhode Island places and people for regional and national magazines for more than twenty years. She lives in Providence's Fox Point with her two kids, who are real Rhode Islanders.

Editor's Notes
Since this article was published in 1991 only the styles have changed; the aesthetic remains. We proffer the following evidence:

Ocean State Follies, Rhode Island's premier comedy cabaret, has been poking fun at our state's foibles since 1992. Two recurring characters are Chevyl and Vhonda, a pair of big hair geniuses with sexy Cvaanston and Johnston accents who run a salon on Mineral Spring Avenue in Nort' Providence called Slut Cuts. Even nearly twenty years later these stereotypes are still recognizable and eminently mockworthy.

Dave Gilmartin, in his 2006 book The Absolutely Worst Places to Live in America, cited Cranston as one example of the nadir of human civilization. Selections for the book were based on submissions from people all over the country, such as this one from a woman named Pam Oakman: "AquaNet and hair salons will never go out of business as long as Cranston exists. Big hair and nails are still in style there, like it's New Jersey circa 1987 or something."

In a 2006 article for the North Providence Breeze, comedian Frank O'Donnell did the math and found that North Providence had more hair salons per capita than any other Rhode Island municipality—one salon for every 490 residents. Johnston and Cranston came in second and third with one salon for every 512 and 524 residents, respectively.

In 2009 the MTV reality show Jersey Shore debuted, spotlighting eight vain and vapid twenty-somethings sharing a house in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Among them was Johnston's Pauly DelVecchio, a club DJ with a super-gelled slicked-up tuffet of hair that immediately became known nationwide by its owner's name. God help us, but it's true—people have actually been requesting the "Pauly D" at their local salons. Pauly's MTV bio notes that he "keeps a tanning bed in his house. He orders gel by the case and does his hair twice a day—once in the morning and once before hitting the town."

So it would seem that the Golden Triangle continues to exert an influence over the hairstyling decisions of the youth of Johnston, Cranston, and North Providence.

Leo's, by the way, was a popular bar and grill located on the corner of Chestnut and Clifford Streets. Because its clientele was heavily weighted with the literati of Providence, the Phoenix's Phillipe and Jorge dubbed it the "Providence Night School of Journalism." Leo's, Barry's Nightclub (1473 Warwick Avenue, Warwick), and Club Confetti (393 Charles Street, Providence), are all long gone.

Hey, did you have big hair in the '90s? Do you still have big hair? Send us a picture! This article needs more illustrations!

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